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A Very Special Playdate

My definition of a playdate is a desperate attempt by the stay-at-home caretaker to connect with persons speaking full sentences. Most likely, this will be unsuccessful due to constant interruptions by tattling, potty accidents and eerie silence. For stay-at-home moms or dads, the playdate is essential to our sanity.

The reasons we attend playdates may differ. Perhaps we just need to get out of our house, or communicate face to face with another person about the latest episode of Glee. The importance of the playdate should not be waved off, either. Our children learn from playing with others in their peer group. As a former teacher, I strongly believe playing is an essential component of learning, and I am proud to be a mom that can ignore a pile of laundry for a good game of hide-and-seek. When I decided to quit my job and stay home, I was super excited to meet other stay-at-home moms and begin the sacred ritual known as the playdate. More personally, however, I was determined… no… desperate… to have friends other than my son’s three therapists.

When I first joined my son’s playgroup, I didn’t know the women well, but they seemed smart and happy. We all had backgrounds in related fields, and our children were very close in age. The moms that had older children were great at sharing experiences and tips, but these suggestions were carefully dispersed and didn’t come across as lectures at all. And, as mentioned earlier, I needed friends outside of an O.T., a special education coordinator and a speech therapist.

Most of these playdates went something like this: After setting up toys, books and snacks, we would get coffee and arrange ourselves so we could see the kids, but far enough away so we could talk about them. Children would be parallel playing or running in circles around the house, laughing and/or fighting. The other moms would begin to swap stories of date nights or television shows. Then there was us. I say ‘us’ because with our schedule, I really didn’t know where mine ended and my son’s began. My child would be clinging to my leg, only content on my lap. When redirected to the other children, he would whimper, panic or simply follow me back to my seat. At two, my son was nonverbal and struggled with typical toddler activities. Other parents actually marveled at how well-behaved he appeared to be, which he was, but there was more to it than that.

When the moms would be sharing experiences of their children, my stories never really had a place. I had the story about scheduling two therapists at the same time, the psychologist who brought up Autism or the early intervention counselor who was 20 minutes late and intruded on nap time. I listened to discussions about how someone was a week late with coloring their hair, and it would remind me that I hadn’t cut mine in four months, as we had struggled to find a baby-sitter that my son could stay with. When they discussed lunch dates, it made me realize I had forgotten that I actually had a self away from my son.
When other women’s cell phones rang, there would be a quick call about evening plans, a lunch date being made or a spouse calling to check on the wife and kiddo. Most likely when my phone rang, it was a therapist. Appointments needed to be shuffled around, information needed dispensing or another evaluation showed his therapy needed to change course. For every time one of these calls were benign, there were also calls when I’d have to bite my lip to keep from crying.

The end of the playdate was usually cut short for us as well, mostly because we had to dash off to therapy session number two. Or my son and I were simply exhausted from speech, O.T. and having to stop at the store. Once in a while, the other moms would begin talking about a time at the park or restaurant before realizing my son and I hadn’t been invited. It was never malicious and I totally understood, but it stung. Again, there was nothing so inherently obviously wrong with my son, but we certainly changed the tone of the playdate. He couldn’t engage with the other kids, which meant I couldn’t really engage with the other mothers.

There came a time when I stopped attending the playdates for a bit; not because we weren’t welcome or because the other kids wouldn’t play with my child. Sometimes, seeing the other children play and talk just made my son’s issues more glaring and scary to me. I think I just got exhausted. Some days, just going to the grocery store and library felt like a feat; then add countless therapy sessions and preschool to the mix, and it got to be too much. I was fortunate, though. Some of these moms kept calling me; they had faith in me, and they knew I needed them. They would find out my schedule and come over. Eventually, all of his therapy began to pay off, and he became a willing participant - or at least enjoyed watching the other children. I began to notice I could have a full conversation with another adult and watch my child play and laugh with someone else.

Though he still has obstacles to overcome, my son will now ask to have friends over. I am so grateful; grateful that these women did not give up on me and my need to discuss Toddlers and Tiaras or a successful recipe I attempted. Back in those insane days of Early Intervention and constant therapy, I did realize my definition of a playdate. It was a supportive group of women that recognized that while I was distracted during our dates, they still talked to me about the mundane, trivial events of my life that had nothing - absolutely nothing - to do with therapy. They made sure I separated myself from my son, and to leave him be sometimes.

If you know a mother of a child with a special need, please don’t give up when your invitations go unanswered. She needs those playdates more than you’ll ever know, and even though she might not acknowledge every phone call, she’s appreciative. Believe me, I know!

Julia lives with her husband and two children. She works part-time at SUNY Fredonia in the Education Department and enjoys writing in her spare time.

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